Saturday, January 3, 2015

All the gifts, all the givers

Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1–12

Today’s gospel story is about some people who did not even come from the neighborhood, who did not belong in a Jewish home, who did not even worship the same god. Yet, they came to visit the new baby, paying honor to him as a king. 
They were Bedouins from Arabia, or Persians, or Ethiopians, somewhere east of Judea. Whoever they were, wherever they came from, they were definitely not Jews. They were Gentiles. They were leaders, important people in their own tribes and countries. They came to worship the new king, born in Judea. When babies are born, people bring gifts. When kings are born, visitors bring more expensive gifts. These visitors brought special gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought about these visitors, and about these gifts. How did they use these gifts in caring for their baby boy? Did they learn that Jesus was important to the whole world? Did they learn that Jesus was not born just for the Jews, but for all people, no matter who they were, and where they were from?
Today, I want us to explore the various types of people we have encountered and the gifts they shared with us, as well as the lessons we learned from them.  

A choir director at a large urban congregation had about 30 children in a weekday choir. This choir was an outreach ministry, part of an afternoon of education, activities, and supper for member children as well as the rag-tag children in the neighborhood.
Several teachers worked with the children each week, and knew it was time for the children to sing during worship. In rehearsal before worship, in their freshly laundered choir smocks, they were subdued. They were afraid of messing up in public. They sang so quietly, the director and teachers wondered if the children would be able to be heard past the third row.
Then Jamie, one of the neighborhood boys, asked the director how she wanted him to sing today. “What do you mean?” she asked. Then she remembered that Jamie was tone deaf, always loud and always off-key. She thought for a moment, and then replied, “I want you to sing the way God wants you to sing.” Jamie smiled and led the singing with a loud and exuberant voice. All the kids in the choir joined him and sang with abandon.
The director was amazed – she had been taught about God’s love for all, with all their gifts – from a rough and tumble boy from the neighborhood who happily shared his gift of singing God’s praise.

My parents were smokers, and I always hated the smell of cigarette smoke. It filled the house, coated the walls, inhabited all the fabric – the drapes, the blankets, the upholstery. In addition, I was taught by society that only bad girls smoked. I was appalled one day in junior high school to see a pack of cigarettes in the purse of one of my friends. I had an attitude about smokers!
Although I had to accept that my parents and many of their friends smoked, I didn’t have any friends who did; that is I didn’t until I was 39 and in Eastern Europe. In a group of 20 women, only one of us smoked. Her name was Terry, and she and I were like sisters. Terry became my confidante on the trip and remained a good friend for years, even though we lived 1,500 miles apart. She gave me the gift of her love and friendship and trust, and taught me that not all girls who smoked were bad girls.

On the TV show Little House on the Prairie, Mrs Oleson is the woman we love to hate. She runs the general store in Walnut Grove, and insists on being as proper as she can be. She prides herself on her self-righteousness.
In an episode that ran last week, Lou was a circus clown. He and his wife and mother park their wagon near the town so they could live a more normal life, and get “real jobs”. Unfortunately, the wife dies in childbirth, and Lou is unable to find work in town because he is a little person, a dwarf (played by Billy Barty). One day, Lou takes some food from the store in order to feed his family. Mrs Oleson discovers the theft and wants Lou arrested and tried and sent to prison.
In the meantime, Mr French has dug a new well for some neighbors. He has to leave the site and covers the hole with some loose boards. Mrs Oleson’s adopted daughter Nancy and a boy are playing, knock the boards aside, and Nancy falls into the well. People realize that Lou is the only adult small enough to go down the well and bring Nancy back to the surface. They get him from the cellar of the store they use as a jail, and he is lowered down the well and brings Nancy up out of the well.
After the rescue, Lou slowly returns to the cellar. Soon, Mrs Oleson comes down the stairs and talks to Lou. Knowing Mrs Oleson as we do from years of watching the show, we wonder if she will ever get out the words. Slowly, she does. First, she thanks Lou for rescuing her daughter. Finally, she gets the rest of it out. She apologizes for her prejudicial attitude against Lou; she has talked to the banker and Lou now has a job there. He and his family are welcome in town.
Mrs Oleson learns a lot from Lou. She learns that she is prejudiced; she learns that even little people have gifts; and she learns that it is not the end of the world when she is forced to say she is sorry. Lou has shared himself, willingly going deep into the earth to rescue a child, giving the gift of life to the child and her family.

It is easy, so easy, to think about those who are different from us as less than us, as too different from us to be worthy of God’s love. But we are all different, one from another. We eat too much or too little; we have perfect pitch or we are tone deaf; we are single, married, widowed, or divorced, or all of the above; we are black, brown, yellow, red or white, or a little of each; we are Democrat or Republican or Independent or Libertarian or No Party Affiliation at all; we are physically fit or somehow disabled; we pray daily or only in times of dire need; we have never done drugs (or cigarettes or alcohol), we tried them once or twice in college, or we are addicted to them; we prefer the old hymns, folk tunes, rock and roll music, praise songs, or hip hop; and on and on and on.
We all have prejudices. Once in a while, someone appears in our lives and helps us recognize our prejudices. They give us the gift of self-awareness, which can lead us to confession, and apology, and forgiveness.
This week, pay attention to your prejudices. Give thanks to the person who helps you see this attitude in yourself. Confess your prejudice; apologize for it, if only to yourself and God. Receive forgiveness, and seek to change, to become more accepting of others.
Jesus came to us to teach us how to love, really love, all people. The shepherds and the magi, the tax collectors and other sinners, the scribes and the Pharisees and the centurions were all welcome in his home. Can we follow Jesus and strive to be just as accepting? I hope so.

Please pray with me. Little Lord Jesus, teach us to love. Teach us also the ways in which we find it hard to love.  We thank you for your love and your patience and your forgiveness. In your holy name, Amen